Let's talk for a moment about the magic power of an excellent writer. In this case, Lauren Groff and her amazing collection of stories, Florida. I should have hated this book. It has two things that rouse significant ire in me: a complete lack of quotation marks around dialogue, and snakes. I hate snakes. Like, detest and abhor them, think they're proof of the infallibility of whatever source of Creation you believe in. This book is full of them.
But even as I was squirming uncomfortably in my chair or on the couch, I could not put this book down. The snakes are never there for shock value, but are a full part of the book, even--sigh--a necessary part. It's a dark book, for sure. There are plenty of unlikable people doing unlikable things. Many times the settings are deep in rural swampland. Not always; a couple of the stories are set in France, but many of the characters in those stories are from Florida. Not surprisingly, Florida itself comes across as a character, a complex, difficult character with ever-shifting attitudes and motives. Sort of like the relative you have that intrigues and scares you, and you don't really want to have them in your home, but you're always open to hearing about them because they're so peculiar and yet fascinating.
And there's heartbreak of all kinds. Just look at the opening sentence of the opening story: "I have somehow become a woman who yells, and because I do not want to be a woman who yells, whose little children walk around with frozen, watchful faces, I have taken to lacing on my running shoes after dinner and going out into the twilit streets for a walk, leaving the undressing and sluicing and reading and singing and tucking in of the boys to my husband, a man who does not yell."
Wow. There's a lot going on right there.
Betrayals are rife here, as are abandonments. In one chilling story, two little girls are left behind in a remote, swampy cabin when their mother disappears under strange circumstances. Spouses leave their partners, people leave their homes. One of those stories involves a young woman who becomes terrifyingly homeless after her boyfriend dumps her.
But here's the thing I love about Groff: She's a fantastic writer, she has a beautiful way with words, she creates full universes, and as unpleasant or downright awful as they can be sometimes, they're always gripping, I always care about the characters even if I don't like them, and I want to know what happens.
Sometimes timing is everything. After waking up to the shock last week of hearing about Anthony Bourdain's suicide (RIP, Tony, you will always have a place in my heart for your so-excellent work, and that heart still aches for the pain you were in), I read the final story (novella, really) called Yport. In this story, an unnamed mother takes her two sons to France for a few weeks in the summer, partly to escape the Florida heat, and ostensibly to continue research on an academic project regarding Guy de Maupassant. But the trip is unnerving on many levels. Things don't go as planned, and the mother is brought to face several unpleasant realities, not the least of which is she hates de Maupassant and will never finish her project. She focuses on the risks of climate change to the point where it's sending her into a deep depression:
"She can't stop the thought that children born now will be the last generation of humans. Her sons have known only luck so far, though suffering will surely come for them. She feels it nearing, the midnight of humanity. Their world is so full of beauty, the last terrible flash of beauty before the long darkness."
Of course I have no idea what was going on in Bourdain's mind. But he was also greatly in tune to the ills of the world, and it's not hard to imagine he might have been having similar thoughts.
It's a story full of despair, and yet doesn't leave the reader fully in despair at the end. It's a powerful piece to end a powerful book, and it left me drained and emotional--and ready to start over from page one. No wonder Groff is one of the few buy-on-the-day-of-release authors for me.